Colette, baptised Nicolette Boilet, was born in Corbie, France. A carpenter’s daughter whose parents were near 60 at her birth. Colette was orphaned at age 17, and left in the care of a Benedictine abbot. Her guardian wanted her to marry, but Colette was drawn to religious life. She initially tried to join the Beguines and Benedictines, but failed in her vocation, feeling the life of those communities not strict enough to her liking.
At 21 she began to follow the Third Order Rule of the Franciscans and became an anchoress, a woman walled into a room whose only opening was a window into a church.
She had visions in which Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) ordered her to restore the Rule of Saint Clare to its original severity. When she hesitated, she was struck blind for three days and mute for three more; she saw this as a sign to take action. After four years of prayer and penance in this cell, she left it.
Colette began her reform during the time of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) when three men claimed to be pope and thus divided Western Christianity. The 15th century in general was a very difficult one for the Western Church. Abuses long neglected cost the Church dearly in the following century; the prayers of Colette and her followers may have lessened the Church’s troubles in the 16th century. In any case, Colette’s reform indicated the entire Church’s need to follow Christ more closely.
Colette tried to follow her mission by explaining it, but had no success. Realizing she needed more authority behind her words, she walked to Nice, France, barefoot and clothed in a habit of patches, to meet Peter de Luna, acknowledged by the French as the schismatic Pope Benedict XIII. He professed her a Poor Clare, and was so impressed that he made her superioress of all convents of Minoresses that she might reform or found, and a missioner to Franciscan friars and tertiaries.
She travelled from convent to convent, meeting opposition, abuse, slander, and was even accused of sorcery. Eventually she made some progress, especially in Savoy, where her reform gained sympathizers and recruits. This reform passed to Burgundy in France, Flanders in Belgium and Spain.
Colette helped Saint Vincent Ferrer, O.P. heal the papal schism. She founded seventeen convents; one branch of the Poor Clares is still known as the Colettines. Her sisters were known for their poverty—they rejected any fixed income—and for their perpetual fast. Colette’s reform movement spread to other countries and is still thriving today.
Colette was known for a deep devotion to Christ’s Passion with an appreciation and care for animals. Colette fasted every Friday, meditating on the Passion. After receiving Holy Communion, she would fall into ecstasies for hours. She foretold the date of her own death. Colette was canonized in 1807.
In her spiritual testament, Colette told her sisters: “We must faithfully keep what we have promised. If through human weakness we fail, we must always without delay arise again by means of holy penance, and give our attention to leading a good life and to dying a holy death. May the Father of all mercy, the Son by His Holy Passion, and the Holy Spirit, source of peace, sweetness and love, fill us with their consolation. Amen.”